Saturday, March 31, 2007

Japanese Directorial History Part II: Establishing a Personal Style (1926 Onwards)

Japanese film leading up to the 1920s remained largely derivative of other art forms. Films based on Kabuki theater and geisha dancing flooded the market. Western influences led to “shingeki,” literary adaptation of classic works, both domestic and imported. At this time, accurately presenting the text was the ultimate goal. The power of authorship was thought to rest in the hands of the original writer, not the director. Very little experimentation was done in Japan to explore film as a unique medium. Rarely was it felt that film merited material tailored specifically to its form of presentation.

This stagnation began to give way in the 1920s as “jidaigeki,” fictionalized period pieces, became a popular genre [Richie 2, 24]. Masterless samurai, called ronin, developed as popular, if rebellious, protagonists. While relatively violent and often nihilistic, these samurai films were still essentially genre movies. They were shot in a fairly conventional manner that blended traditional Japanese and established Western techniques. It would not be until 1926 with Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness that a personal style, rather than simply a “Japanese” or “Western” aesthetic would assert itself as a viable mode.

Kinugasa was too experimental to be tolerated by the already dominant studio system in Japan, and the film had to be financed out of his own pocket. A mild critical success, the film was still a financial disappointment and Kinugasa would only be able to make one other film, 1928’s Crossroads, before being subsumed by the studio system. Despite a mere two-film run of independent movies, Kinugasa had established a unique style that incorporated Japanese culture, German expressionism, Russian montage editing and American special effects. Crossroads continued Kinugasa’s themes of madness and further experimented with uncanny imagery. Although his films were lost for almost 45 years, today they are seen as definitive evidence of a burgeoning movement towards directorial authorship; a movement that would grow further in the 1930s.

One of Japan’s first great directors, Yasujiro Ozu, started his career in 1929, but it wasn’t until his I Was Born, But… (1932), about youths seeking a father figure, that he started gaining attention for his signature style. Although influenced by Chaplin and Lubitsch, Ozu gained renown for consciously rejecting many of the tenets of Hollywood filmmaking (or, for that matter, filmmaking anywhere). By the 1940s and 1950s, Ozu was well known for filming in 360 degree space, shooting from unusually low levels, filming with a single 50mm lens (creating a flat, uniform quality) and highlighting graphical relations and transitional shots devoid of characters [Kijo]. He also refused to pander to international audiences and their short attention spans. By the early 1930s, he had eliminated pans, dissolves, fades and most camera movement from his films, allowing him to focus on beautiful static compositions and humanistic character development.

His plots shifted from highly American-influenced slapstick comedies to “shomen-geki,” quiet, meditative tales of simple, everyday characters, such as small children in I Was Born, But… and Good Morning (1959), middle-class families in Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953) or traveling actors in Floating Weeds (1959). Ozu’s oeuvre was one of first in Japan to be representative of a particular directorial style and tone without restrictive ties to genre or nationality.

Around the same time as Ozu, director Kenji Mizoguchi also established himself. Mizoguchi’s films were characterized by extremely long takes (“one scene, one shot”), 90 degree editing (making him one of the few directors in the world other than Ozu to oppose the Hollywood-perfected 180 degree system) and a focus on the downtrodden and suffering (The Life of Ohara [1952], Ugetsu [1953] and Sansho: The Bailiff [1954]).

Unlike Ozu, Mizoguchi often favored wide-angle lenses (24-35mm) to lend depth and distinct layering to his compositions. Mizoguchi’s life and films became deeply associated with a traditional Japanese aesthetic (his set design and lighting intentionally recall famous works of Japanese art), but his technique remains definitively his own. His frequent concern with issues of the treatment of women and their role in Japan makes him one of the first directors to be repeatedly associated with a progressive or controversial theme.

A sensitive advocate of feminism, Mizoguchi would return to the plight of women as a subject throughout his career: Sisters of Gion (1936), Osaka Elegy (1936), Utamaro and his Five Women (1946), The Life of Oharu (1952) and A Geisha (1953). Although we shall continue to address the issues of personal style, Kenji Mizoguchi serves as an excellent point to begin a discussion of the second form of directorial resistance: taking a social or political stance


Patti said...

You make me miss watching movies. Also, I don't know what 90 degree editing means. On the flip side, though, I have heard of at least one of the movies you're talking about (Tokyo Story).

(Also: for class or for fun?)

FilmWalrus said...

To be honest it was for a class about a year ago, but I am pretty happy with the paper overall. I don't do nearly as much research when its just for fun.

The class was "Modern History of Japan" with no actual mention of film. I chose the topic for myself because of my love for Japanese cinema.

Patti said...

Now I remember. But that's totally cool. Also, a good idea to release the essay in pieces.